Lawyers taking rising numbers of special education cases say an independent tribunal is needed to ensure "inconsistent and arbitrary" funding decisions are resolved fairly for families.
Advocates, academics and some politicians support the idea in varying degrees, saying parents have nowhere to turn if their kids are refused funding or asked to leave a school.
"It's about children's rights and access to justice," said IHC advocacy director Trish Grant. "Currently, there's lots of deals done through mediation, but that doesn't set precedent or create systemic change to benefit other kids."
Calls for a better advocacy and review system follow a Herald investigation into special education which found the demand for services is exceeding what's available. Parents have reported paying for their own teacher aides or homeschooling children because of a lack of resources.
One of the most contentious issues is access to the Ongoing Resourcing Scheme (ORS), covering the most severe or complex 1 per cent of students.
Each year about 500 families - one third of those who apply - are turned away from ORS. The Ministry of Education says those who don't meet the criteria still have access to specialist resources, but schools and families say children's needs outstrip what's available.
Parents can appeal ORS decisions, but only once a year, and advocates say many are unaware of the process. In the past four years there were 26 appeals out of 7459 applications.
Other avenues, usually used only if a student is excluded from school, include the Human Rights Commission or a judicial review, as in a recent case where an autistic boy was expelled from Green Bay College.
Lawyer Jen Puah, from Youthlaw, said a rising number of families were now seeking its help with special education, including ORS appeals.
Ms Puah said the current process - where the ministry and parents agreed on a mediator and could bring a support person - still resulted in what she called "arbitrary and inconsistent" decisions. "For example, children with similar learning needs may apply and one will be successful and another will not be."
Youthlaw said an independent tribunal would ensure students' rights were upheld.
Green MP Catherine Delahunty said she was contemplating drafting a member's bill to change the law to include an advocacy service within the current system, with the very last step a tribunal.
"We need experienced people to work with students and schools at the earliest possible stage and only after that should they need to seek legal help," she said.
Auckland University's Rod Wills said funding was needed for someone independent to advocate for parents - with changes to attitude and accountability.
Colleen Brown, chair of the Auckland parent body Disability Connect, believed advocates rather than lawyers would help parents.
"Otherwise, you end up having to lobby, and really, you just want to be the mum," Mrs Brown said.
The ministry said it had considered independent advocacy, arbitration and mediation. It favoured mediation to resolve issues, because it is easy to use, resolves issues quickly, is less stressful for parents, does not require investigation and is cost-effective.
The ministry said the majority of disagreements could be resolved at school level. It was always willing to step in and put in place an informal resolution process.
'We have nowhere else to go'
Mum Jacqui Morland has lost count of the number of times her son Thomas has been turned down for the help his family and school believe he desperately needs.
Thomas, 11, has epilepsy and last year suffered a stroke in his right side after having brain surgery. But he doesn't qualify for top-level support despite reading at a 6-year-old level.
After the stroke Thomas had to learn to write with his left hand. He tires easily and struggles with a short attention span because of his disorder and medication. He gets some teacher aide support for his health - but not for his learning.
The Greytown family have applied for Ongoing Resourcing Scheme support but say they don't believe they will get it until Thomas drops even further behind.
"You have to be really, really bad to qualify," said Mrs Morland. "Kids with a little bit of potential are being overlooked."
She said their school was fantastic at including Thomas, but he needed a lot more help than the 1.5 hours of teacher aide time it could afford.
"If there was another avenue to get the funding decision looked at we'd take it. We have nowhere else to go."
Ongoing resourcing scheme
•$193 million per year.
•For students with complex or severe learning difficulties, including physical impairment, intellectual disability, communication disorders.
•Funding available to 1% of student population, highly contested.
•Students get an average $29,000 in additional teaching time, extra resources, specialist programmes, and some teacher aide hours.
Yesterday: Stretched special education system struggling to cope
Today: Should there be an independent special education tribunal?
Tomorrow: Excluded from education at 3 years old